Updated: Jan 19, 2018
You got that new camera and lens for Christmas, booked a trip to your favorite National Park, and you are ready to capture the wildlife photo which will put you on the front cover of National Geographic. Then reality sets in. As you drive through the park
earnestly looking for wildlife you are confronted by endless traffic jams, buses, tourists and wild creatures who purposely choose to be non photogenic. So how do the Pros do it? Here are some tips on how you can dramatically improve your wildlife photography experience when visiting National Parks.
1. Know Your Camera Equipment: DSLRs and Mirrorless Cameras can be very confusing; they are not simply point and shoot. One of the biggest errors new photographers make is not taking the time to learn their camera and the basic approaches to photography. The errors made in photographing in low light with moving subjects can be avoided through practice and education. Once you have the basics of photography down, you can begin to tell your sophisticated camera how to work for you. Simple applications of Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO will make a huge difference in the output from your camera, especially when capturing wildlife. Lenses are equally, if not more important. National Parks have obvious rules on how close you can approach animals, Follow Them!
That said, you must ensure you have a focal length that will get the job done. I go with a minimum 300mm and shoot above 600mm. I recommend beginners start with a telephoto lens with a broad spectrum of reach to both familiarize yourself with zoom ranges and keep less lenses in the bag. #Sigma and #Tamron both have quality, affordable lenses at 150mm-600mm that are excellent for wildlife. I also recommend at least a mono-pod or sturdy tripod (I shoot with both) to ensure you keep camera shake at a minimum. There is nothing worse than getting your first bear in frame, only to find out later it was slightly out of focus due to shaky hands. Finally, practice, practice, and more practice. Shoot animals at dawn and dusk in challenging light, capture and freeze birds in flight, or even work on composing your shots at a local wildlife refuge or zoo. The important thing is to go out and shoot, analyze your work, adjust, and go shoot some more.
2. Know Your Park: Having traveled and photographed in countless National Parks there is one common denominator, People. As much as you would like to have the park to yourself, over 330 million people visited our National Parks in 2016, that is 4% more people than the entire US population. If your focus is wildlife photography and you want to beat the tourists and selfie extraordinaire, you have to plan and time your visit accordingly. When teaching a workshop and during personal shoots, I follow a simple rule, get up early and leave the park late. Animals are much more active in the early mornings and late afternoons. Get inside before dawn and find your spot. In Yellowstone for example, Hayden Valley is a great early morning location to capture Bison, Elk, Bears, and Wolves at sunrise.
Once the elk begin to head back into the woods and the harsh sunlight begins to show, it's time for a few bird or landscape shots and then off for a late breakfast or early lunch. I smile at the backed up traffic and lines at the park entrance as we exit. Then its time to relax, do some post processing and head back for an afternoon shoot. Wave at all the cars exiting for dinner and find your spot. Now you'll capture active animals feeding before sunset and much less traffic on the roads. The time of year also plays an important role in your success as a wildlife photographer. Spring and fall, depending on your subjects, will have much less traffic than summer. I personally like spring as the animals put their babies on display and fall because of the colors, the rut and animals fattening up for the harsh winter. Do your research, learn the layout of the park, and inquire about wildlife activity from the rangers and locals. Follow these few tips and you will be much more successful and less frustrated when visiting National Parks to capture wildlife through your lens.
3. Know Your Subjects: Professional wildlife photographers all share one common trait, their love of nature. Their passion is ignited through many years of photographing and studying the animals they cherish. If you are new to wildlife photography one simple tip to help you get better at photographing animals is to study them. There are many sources online and endless books that can help you research the animals you are chasing, especially in National Parks.
Take the time to learn about their anatomy, migration patterns, mating characteristics, predatory instincts, or herd behaviors. It's funny how connected we become the more we understand our subjects. Educating
yourself will also create a level of awareness around animals and your responsibility of keeping them and yourself safe while on location. National Parks are truly a photographer's playground. The accessibility to wildlife is endless if you know when and where to look, have the right equipment, and most importantly a deep respect for the subjects in your viewfinder.
Tom Mace is professional wildlife photographer and co-owner of Tripod Travelers LLC